Leonard Development Enhanced With USA Team

The Fighting Illini basketball team has unanswered questions going into the 2011-12 season. Perhaps the biggest of all concerns the tallest player on the team, Meyers Leonard. His experiences with USA basketball this summer undoubtedly will help him advance his game. Illini coach Bruce Weber discusses Leonard's hoped-for improvement this summer.

Meyers Leonard was invited to the USA basketball team trials for the 19 and Under World Championship team, and he was selected. Needing to develop his game and improve his focus, Illinois coach Bruce Weber sees this as a possible turning point for his young 7-footer.

"One, he gets to go to the trials. It's a great experience to be out there with the top kids around the country, to see where you are. And then to make the team.

"The thing we don't have right now is access with the kids. This chance to be with coaches for two weeks and then competition with kids all over the world, it's just a great experience for him."

Weber is one of those who helped select the team, but he says Leonard earned his spot with quality play. Weber was especially grateful to see a more mature person on the court.

"Maturity-wise, which is something that's big with his improvement, he was a new person, a new player at the trials. From coaches looking at his numbers to NBA people, I think Meyers might have been one of the best surprises there.

"He's running the court, he's posting up, playing stronger. I think he understands it. He had a good spring. So hopefully it will be a great opportunity for him. He'll benefit in a lot of ways."

Leonard played a secondary role on a guard-dominated team early in the tournament in Latvia. But the team recovered to take fifth place, and Leonard began to play as hoped in the last few games. Weber reminds it is difficult to play with a team so far from home.

"It's a hard thing, and a lot of kids don't do it because it's a sacrifice. It's gonna be a grind for him. There comes a point with kids in USA basketball, you wish you were home. I think in the long run, he's gonna look back and see it was a big changing point in his career."

Leonard has tremendous potential. He combines height with strength and excellent athleticism for his size. NBA scouts often favor developing big men due to their scarcity. Will Leonard's maturation lead to an early departure to the NBA?

"We talked as a staff after his spring. Our guys follow the stuff on the future draft boards, all that stuff. He's gonna be a person that's talked about.

"But the biggest thing I think, and this will be interesting to see what happens with the new contract with the NBA and the Players Association, you might only be guaranteed one year as a rookie. So if you go, you better be ready.

"They'll redshirt them, in a way. They'll give them opportunities to see how they can develop. But hopefully Meyers will listen and trust us. It's a long way off. First, he's got to play well. We'll see how he does this summer in this competition, when we go to Italy, and how he does this next year."

Weber knows the possibility of losing Leonard exists even though he still has much to learn. The Illini are always looking to recruit additional big men.

"Meyers showed real well, now he's got to perform well there. And he's got to have a great year. Then we'll have to worry about that.

"If he's good enough and he can go, it's good for him. And then we'd have to make sure we have another big man. We feel good about Nnanna (Egwu) right now, but you have to have some depth there."

Weber ties up some loose ends from this past year's team in part 3 of a 9-part report.

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